Anyone who lived in Virginia in the ’90s heard about Michael Vick. It was impossible not to. He was another child of the Tidewater region, famous for producing some of the best athletes in the country, even to the point of rivaling California, Texas and Florida in producing football stars.
Vick never got the national coverage he deserved prior to going to Virginia Tech – back in those days, the Washington newspapers were more interested in covering Maryland sports than southern Virginia (heck, they still are) – but once he was in college, he took off like a rocket. My folks are both VaTech alums, and even though they weren’t huge college football fans, Vick’s arrival made the Hokies matter for us and for all Virginia sports fans. And his performance in a loss against Florida State made him matter to the whole nation.
It’s amazing to look back at some of the coverage of Vick prior to the 2001 NFL draft. Even then, the questions were lurking in the background: could he handle it?
In the first few seasons after Vick’s arrival, it looked like the San Diego Chargers had made a huge mistake passing on him to select LaDainian Tomlinson (he fell to number 5 – can you believe it?) and Drew Brees. He was the Human Highlight Reel. He did things that were just incredible, superhuman – I remember watching a game against the Carolina Panthers where, down to their last play and needing a touchdown, Vick somehow managed to hover an inch above the ground as he flew in to score. His amazing ability revitalized football in Atlanta, coming off 5-11 and 4-12 seasons – his jerseys were everywhere – and put him on the cover of Madden, even though the curse of that video game ultimately doomed his next season. And just last year, he broke a 34-year-old record for rushing yards by a quarterback, with over 1,000. It’s an incredible achievement, especially for a kid who just a few years ago was being wheeled around with a cast on his foot by owner Arthur Blank.
Vick wasn’t just a sideshow – he won, too. In 2002, when he was just a 22 year old kid, Vick did what no other starting quarterback had ever done – winning on the road at Lambeau Field in the playoffs, a performance that will probably go down as the biggest game of his professional career.
Now, all those physical gifts, all those amazing performances, are lost to us for the foreseeable future. Vick was foolish enough to commit a crime that had only recently become a federal offense. And in the absence of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s as yet unshared opinion on the matter, and the suspension likely to follow on Vick’s jail sentence, it’s hard to see how Vick ever sees the field again or plays a down in the NFL. On sports radio stations and in the opinion pages across the country, a lifetime ban is being discussed openly.
Let’s be clear about this: Michael Vick deserves to go to jail. He broke the law, and he will suffer a penalty. But there is no question in my mind that he deserves to play football again.
Gregg Easterbrook took what I think is a pretty brave stand on this point. While I don’t agree with him about the racial nature of this crime – I think that we would be just as likely to experience this sort of reaction and coverage if, say, Jeremy Shockey had committed the same crime, or if Tony Gonzalez was running a cock-fighting ring – I do agree that there’s a distinct lack of perspective on this. PETA and their lobbying forces have successfully convinced the sports media to turn dogfighting – a vile activity, to be sure, but one that’s engaged in all too frequently in the South – into the worst possible crime an athlete can engage in. And that’s just ridiculous.
Here’s the truth: the NFL has had more than its fair share of thugs, criminals, and drug pushers in its recent history. Easterbrook cites the obvious examples of two murderers – that you can still purchase an O.J. Simpson or a Rae Carruth jersey, and that the former is still in the NFL Hall of Fame. But there’s far more than that. There’s thief and attempted murderer Barret Robbins, there’s Lawrence Taylor and Lawrence Phillips, drug dealers like Jamal Lewis and Terrence Kiel and Bam Morris, there’s Brian Blades, Nate Newton and his pounds and pounds of pot…and of course, there’s former ESPN analyst and newest NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, who’s long litany of drug related offenses reach a new level of ridiculousness each year.
But perhaps the best example of the double standard Vick is experiencing is one Leonard Little, defensive end and sack machine for the St. Louis Rams. With a pattern of DUI offenses, the intoxicated Little plowed through a red light into an intersection and killed a middle-aged wife and mother. Little got 90 nights in jail (work-release), and 1,000 hours of community service. When he was picked up in 2004, speeding again and drunk out of his mind, Little could’ve been prosecuted for a felony. Instead, he just got more probation. And a brand new multi-million dollar contract. ESPN’s Scouts Inc. predicts that Little will anchor an improved Rams defense this year.
Michael Vick did horrible things, yes. He is going to bear the punishment for his crime. But his crime should not end his career simply because of the political pressure of a powerful lobby or the hot lights of round the clock sports coverage. Vick is still a competitor, and he deserves the chance to compete and win a shot with another team in the future.
And let’s be honest about what this all means for this young man. Ending the prospect of a possibility to play football again will, in all likelihood, take Vick down the sad path toward despair and self-destruction. Commissioner Goodell’s choice on this matter – whether to treat Vick’s crime the way the media wants him to treat it, or to treat it for what it is – doesn’t just determine the future of an athlete, a commodity for his sport. It determines the future of a young man who has hoped for, worked for, and risked his body for one singular goal since he was just a kid, playing tag in the inner city streets, and dreamed of the gridiron and the bright lights of Monday night.